Could FBI Again Struggle To Get Access To Orlando Terrorist's Phone?

Ryan Anthony

One of the aspects of the investigation into Sunday morning's terrorist attack on the Pulse Night Club in Orlando, Florida, will be accessing the terrorist's home, car, computer, and other electronic media.

Local authorities have confirmed to federal officials and media outlets that as Omar Madeen mowed down more than 100 people in the night club, he called 911 and pledged his allegiance to the Islamic State, better known as ISIS.

For anyone who may not remember, the shooters in the San Bernardino terrorist attack also pledged allegiance to ISIS during their attack on an office party, though the pledge was made on social media.

After that attack, less than six months ago, federal authorities struggled to gain access to Syed Farook's work iPhone. Could the same thing happen this time with the Orlando terrorist's phone? Let us look at the details of that case versus the case unfolding in Florida this evening.

First, Farook was said to be using an iPhone and after the shooting, a major public relations battle between the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Apple ensued. Apple said it could not in good conscience hack a terrorist's iPhone even though the individual had opened fire and killed a dozen people in cold blood.

As a result of Apple's refusal to hack Farook's iPhone and reveal whatever secrets were hidden in it to the authorities investigating the ISIS-inspired terror attack -- at that time the worst terrorist attack since September 11, 2011 -- several lawsuits were filed by the feds against the company.

But before the case could be heard in court, the BBC reports that the FBI was able to hack the phone. How exactly were they able to hack a phone that was said to be unhackable? We do not have all the details, but it appears that hackers outside the federal government were able to develop software that accessed the internals of the device without the compromising of Apple's trade secrets or its self-proclaimed moral position. In total, it costs taxpayers more than $1 million to get to this point, which FBI Director James Comey said was "worth it," according to the BBC.

What we do not know at this point is what type of phone the Orlando terrorist used when he made his call to the local 911 center and pledged his allegiance to ISIS. But regardless, reporting was done during the California terror attack aftermath with ReCode reporting that Google's Android devices could be more easily accessed by federal authorities.

"In a sweeping November report on encryption, Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance wrote that Google can 'reset the passcodes' on some Android phones without full encryption, when served with a search warrant. 'This process can be done by Google remotely and allows forensic examiners to view the contents of a device,' according to the report."

The other piece, at least in terms of Android, is the manufacturers of individual phones which is often-times not Google.

"Authorities could crack Android phones that aren't fully encrypted or passcode-locked themselves," ReCode reported. "Or it could be forced to turn to whoever makes the phone — Samsung, Lenovo or the umpteen (largely international) other hardware makers, who may have different security systems."

Authorities in Orlando have not made clear where the investigation has gone and whether they have had trouble accessing computers and phones, though it would be assumed that the shooter's phone was likely on his person or in the proximity of his body once the siege on Pulse stopped around 5 a.m. this morning.

[Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images]